Today, the words "I followed you" most often mean something along the lines of: my Internet presence appreciates your Internet presence and thus, thanks to the click of a button, I will now be made aware of your online activities.
Occasionally, however, when someone says "I followed you," they mean, quite literally, that for the past 24 hours he or she has been physically tracing your footsteps, staying hidden from view, and monitoring the banal details of your daily life. Especially if that someone is artist Lauren McCarthy.
McCarthy, an artist and programmer based in Brooklyn, is the inventor of Follower, an app that enlists a stalker to follow you around for an entire day. In an age where 1,000 Twitter followers can be purchased from websites like InterTwitter for the bargain price of $14, McCarthy understands the bizarre and urgent need so many of us have to be seen, watched, and surveilled.
Why do you want to be followed? Why should we follow you?
These are the two questions McCarthy poses to those who sign up for her app. These two simple queries are perhaps, though unspoken, present in much of our online interactions, when attempting to "grow a following" or "get more likes." What are we really after? Recognition? Fame? Love? And what are they?
From the answers submitted, McCarthy selects who it is she will follow, assigning each unknowing participant a random date. The followee has no knowledge when the following will take place. There is no human interaction or contact. The only clue is a single photograph, of the followee, given to them at the end of the day.
"There is something strangely intimate about the whole thing," McCarthy explained in an interview with Broadly. "By the end of the day, I feel as though I know them, and we have had a prolonged experience together. I've followed them through the rain, watched them play tennis, eat with friends, watch a movie, shop for groceries, walk to and from their homes. At times it seems they're doing things just for me, or maybe they even notice me, but I can't ever be sure ... For some reason, through the process, I find myself really liking every person I follow."
The performance piece, reminiscent of Sophie Calle's work, which often revolved around following strangers with detective-like methods and whimsical stipulations, attempts to explore the relationship between attention and surveillance, and the boundary between the two.
"We have this intense desire to be seen, to feel connected," McCarthy explains on her website. "But is that desire really fulfilled by watching your follower count tick upward? Could a real life follower provide something more meaningful or satisfying? How does this fit with our fear of surveillance? We imagine 'the man' or Google or the government watching us, but does it feel different if we know it's a real live human?"
The app also contains echoes of Miranda July's now defunct app Somebody in its attempt to use technology to catalyze physical human interaction and connection. This is another crux of McCarthy's project, to use the clearly addictive model of "follows" and "likes" to create material, significant interactions and stories. In the artist's words: "I'm wondering, as much as technology may separate us at times, could it also bring us together in new and interesting ways?"